Monthly Archives: September 2012

I suspect that most people fall into two camps when presented with an Unexpected Guest.  There are those who are happy when a friend or relative (or stranger) turns up unannounced, and those who are annoyed that they haven’t had the opportunity to vacuum the stairs. I am the latter. The concept of the Liverpool Biennial 2012 is intriguing due to its inherent contradiction.  But I wonder about the need for a concept at all?  Speaking about dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel earlier this year, the Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev asserted that there was “no concept” to her art festival; this allowed new and old conversations in the visual arts to reveal themselves like a litmus test. Which begs the question: do themes help us to navigate art festivals or are they surplus to requirements?

Liverpool’s Biennial has a number of strands (the John Moores Painting Prize 2012, The Source, the New Contemporaries, Citystates, the Independents and The Unexpected Guest).  The first five have distinct identities and flavours and the latter seems to be a repository for all other content. It seems to be characterised by a certain sort of transience, which is maybe due to the short-term nature of Bienniales.  Sally Tallant the Director of Liverpool Biennial says in The Unexpected Guest catalogue that “Cities are defined, and changed, by the people who occupy them.  These occupations can be momentary or last months…”.  This resonates with my experience of the opening weeks of the festival, which have mostly been event-based and centred on the relationship between creativity and place.

The first event I attended was a presentation by the John Moores Painting Prize China artists. The winner of the John Moores Painting Prize China is Nie Zhegjie who is concerned in an artistic and emotional sense by the way that farmers are regarded in Chinese society.  He paints them with grotesque distorted faces or no faces at all.  His painting doesn’t appeal to me on any aesthetic level and it is only when he speaks about his work that I learn to appreciate it.  After I attended the talk, I re-read Ai Wei Wei’s recent article in the Guardian.  In it he says that Chinese art needs to have critical content and “respect for the people’s struggle” to be meaningful.  Nie Zhegjie’s painting seems to possess the very critical content that Ai Wei Wei is looking for.

Held in the ‘camp’ part of Camp and Furnace, The Medium is the Medium, an afternoon co-hosted by (Liverpool-based arts and culture website) and Tate Liverpool, was the next event in my calendar.  The speakers included editor of Aesthetica magazine Cherie Federico, Goldsmiths lecturer Edgar Schmitz and journalist and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer.  The aim was to analyse the nature of critical writing in the early 21st century; especially looking at the impact of blogging and twitter. Some of the most entertaining and thought-provoking moments came  courtesy of Miranda Sawyer who told a story about outing Primal Scream as drug-users, leading on from this she advised the audience to ask themselves the question “am I a journalist or a friend of the artists?” the suggestion was that the two are not necessarily compatible.

This event made a coherent argument for critical writing as an art form.  Schmitz offered this nice description of his own critical writing “…I do not have a methodology. I do not have a stable vocabulary… I have an urgency, something needs thinking about”.  He also reflected on why most writers do not identify as a critic, they are always an artist, teacher or curator who also writes (I expect this applied to many members of the audience).

The only ‘exhibition’ that I visited this week was the not-so-snappily named Sky Arts: Doug Aitken’s The Source at Tate Liverpool.  Aitken’s video work, a series of interviews with creative practitioners from all disciplines, followed on well from Schmitz’ observation about the plurality of creative roles.  The US artist appears in each 3 minute film (there are 18 in total shown on multiple screens) asking each interviewee where the source of inspiration comes from.  The experience was like being in a crowded bar, where you have to move closer to the objects of your attention to block out the chatty rumble of background sound. In spite of the stunning locations of the interviews, much of what was said translated across the Atlantic Ocean and all the way to dreary post-Industrial northern towns. In particular I thought of my home in Garston when Jack White said that “you can’t live next to factories without being influenced by them.”

The dreary Midlands were the backdrop for my last talk of the week; George Shaw in conversation at the Walker Art Gallery, in his capacity as one of the John Moores Painting Prize jurors. He became a juror to see “what it is like on the other side of the fence” and (to the probable relief of every artist who has entered) he confirms that there is no “skulduggery.” Shaw’s work isn’t featured in the Biennial this year, but his success as an artist, in particular his 2011 Turner Prize nomination, is the reason that he was selected as one of the jurors.  Shaw is an artist rooted in place and in process.  He often depicts the town of his birth (Coventry) grudgingly using paint as a medium for his sentimental and romantic point of view.  He says that “the places that humans are most honest is funerals” and describes his paintings as “karaoke funeral anthems”.  His humble paintings of streets, council estates and pubs are a way of memorialising moments in time.

Engaging with the Unexpected Guest theme isn’t necessary to enjoy the Biennial, and yet to some extent it underwrites all of the elements that make up the festival.  The relationship between hospitality and culture is interesting.  It isn’t always a harmonious relationship as Lorenzo Fuzi hints at in his catalogue essay when he says “[hospitality is] a form of power that acts in a similar way to dominance and control.” But at its most basic level, ‘the Unexpected Guest’ could refer to the invitation to artists and speakers to converge on Liverpool, as they are doing throughout the festival, to surprise, entertain and challenge us.

First published on the Liverpool Daily Post Arts Blog October 2012

THE first day of the Liverpool Biennial, the day after the night before, the day after everyone’s hard work came to fruition, the day after the after party, I found myself in a shed. The shed was the stage for a piece of performance art (or was it? – more on that question later…) located within an art fair, within an interesting comment on the traditional art market, within an innocuous warehouse building, within the Jamaica Street area of Liverpool, on a day when that area was buzzing with life.


I was at Cave Art Fair, a new model of artist-led arts commerce. This was an interesting place for me to start my Biennial experience, as I have been thinking a lot lately about the art market, taste and sustainability. The founders, Flis Mitchell and Kevin Hunt, speaking to the website Seven Streets, said that they wanted their art fair to be “playful and inclusive”. Cave’s USP is that it is not-for-profit and the artists receive one hundred percent of the sale price. Although in one sense a lovely idea, it comes precariously close to suggesting that you shouldn’t put a value on the facilitation of art and the creation of opportunities.

Interestingly, this resonated with the conversation within the shed. Oliver Braid, in the process of presenting a trilogy of power-points, was prompting a debate among his small but highly engaged audience about what motivates artists to share their work. Braid has a very refreshing practise which involves an ongoing critique and analysis of his own strategies. I wrote about his exhibition at the Royal Standard, Liverpool for The Double Negative, earlier this year (here). He also has strong links to the city, having lived here for a few years in the mid-noughties.The framework of Oliver’s performance – he claims it isn’t a performance, but I certainly interpreted it as such – was to repeat three presentations that he gave throughout 2011 and 2012. ‘Sincerity Shoe’ took the audience on a journey through the philosophical and emotional education that Braid engineered for himself over the last couple of years. 2011, he said, was the year of becoming more deserving of love and money; 2012 on the other hand has been his year of seriousness; an attempt to challenge the misapprehension that others often hold that he is always being irreverent.

Braid is part of the duo behind the Ellie and Oliver show, a weekly radio broadcast from the hosts’ base in Glasgow. Similarly to this performance, the show is a platform for discussing the themes that arise from trying to operate as professional artists and navigate friendships, familial and romantic relationships and live a physically and emotionally healthy life. In contrast to the radio show, here Braid introduces a visual element by punctuating his presentation with clipart images. Stacks of Christmas presents, the cast of Friends or the face of Quentin Crisp would appear as if conjured from Braid’s subconscious on the spot. This has the effect of introducing humour but also allowing the audience at least a chance of keeping up with Braid’s complex style of story-telling, a combination of over-sharing and pop-philosophy.

Back to Cave. Although ethically debateable, the tone manages to be simultaneously joyful and professional. The curation is sensitive; works by one artist are not necessarily displayed together so it feels like a group show rather than a shop. The selection is brave and the integration of performance art makes a visit into a memorable experience. Art Fairs are one of the missing pieces of the Liverpool art market jigsaw. There are collectors here, the Biennial, many good galleries, art schools and practitioners but no commercial galleries showcasing contemporary art and, until now, no art fair. The Cave model fits within the DIY spirit of the Liverpool art scene and offers a new solution for enabling artists to make a living.

Elsewhere in the Biennial, so far I have been disappointed by Anthony McCall’s no-show and excited to see so many shop-fronts and formerly disused spaces becoming pop-up galleries. It is only the beginning… so look out for my regular blogs over the coming weeks.

Cave Art Fair continues until 16 September 2012
Baltic Creative Campus, Jamaica Street, Liverpool, L1 0BW
(entrance on New Bird Street)

Earlier in the year I escaped from the Sea Odyssey giants and the related monstrous crowds to visit 2up2down at their ground zero, Oakfield Road in Anfield, Liverpool. The most striking thing about this location is the proximity to Liverpool Football Club’s ground. The stadium looms large at the end of the street, occupying a huge amount of space in the hearts and minds of the local residents, and a huge force in the politics and economy of the area. A good place to locate a bakery you might think?

In fact, until about 18 months ago, there was an operational bakery on Oakfield Road, but the short-time that has passed since it closed demonstrates how quickly buildings and communities can look tired and neglected once businesses pack up and go. Not that anyone could accuse the Mitchell family, former owners of the premises, of being flippant about leaving. The family all worked into their 70s at the bakery before retiring.

What looks set to take its place is an interesting consortium led by the local Community Land Trust. The CLT network website describes itself as a “non-profit, community-based [organisation] run by volunteers [which develop] housing or other assets at permanently affordable levels for long-term community benefit.” I expect that we are going to see and hear the CLT making themselves a lot more visible in years to come, as communities look for alternative ways in which to make their voices heard and generate change.

Mitchell’s Bakery was an ideal project for the Anfield CLT as it was such an important amenity in the local area, and yet it looked destined to be another empty shop front. The other interesting partner in the mix is Liverpool Biennial, who are funding an artist – Jeanne van Heeswijk – to work with the CLT group in order to visualise sustainable and achievable new ways of living and working within the context of the bakery. The project is also supported by Arena Housing and Liverpool City Council, and the architects are community project specialists, Urbed.

2up2down owe a lot of their momentum so far to the Biennial and specifically to Jeanne, whose input Marianne Heaslip, architect at Urbed, describes as “absolutely vital”. At the moment the bakery is only open on certain days or for certain purposes – such as workshops with local school children, weekly meetings (where all are welcome) and regular drop in sessions.

The workshops started around the same time that 2up2down (the name given to the Biennial project and the CLT working together at the bakery) secured the building, in spring 2011. ‘Secured’ is an interesting word as the bakery seems to be in a precarious position at the moment, held together by good will and determination. There are signs that the CLT group are gaining in confidence, as they became formally incorporated in April this year and have a new identity as ‘Homebaked’.

You don’t have to be in Mitchell’s Bakery very long before you are convinced of the importance of localised community-led commerce. In the couple of hours I was there, chatting to some of the volunteers, architects and champions of the project, three different people came in to see if they could buy bread. This is very surprising giving that there are a few loaves as props but otherwise no signs of building’s former purpose. The 2up2downers didn’t seem that surprised though, and they have been compiling a list of contact details in order to keep the community up to date with developments.

Their plan is to have a small-scale bakery up in operation by the time Liverpool Biennial launches in September this year. Marianne says that this first phase will include “loos, a new floor, a mini-shop fit in the front and a hygienic space for baking in the back, sealed off from future building work.”

The full fit-out will include a larger operational bakery, conferencing areas, a roof top garden and three dwellings in the empty residences above and next door to the shop. The intention for this accommodation is to have apprentices live and work on site learning building trades and baking. There will also be areas where people can sit together and of course, eat.

After spending a bit of time here, you start to notice some hints at the design aesthetic that the bakery will be aiming for. The trendy looking lampshades are actually industrial sized whisks and the plant pots are loaf tins. You also don’t have to be here very long before you start to get an idea of the problems this community is facing, and how this project is serving as a positive outlet for understandable frustrations.

One of the group tells me that “a neighbour [of hers] was recently re-housed in a house with a garden, and she immediately got it flagged over.  There is an idea about new housing solving all these problems – but she raised three kids in a house without a garden and she didn’t want the hassle.” This is very revealing and demonstrates the pitfalls of the one size fits all approach to modern living.

The community in Anfield don’t want to see rows and rows of empty houses but they also don’t want the council to make compulsory purchases of their homes. The houses around here may look like identical terraces, but they are actually disguising interiors as unique as their occupants; full of memories, personal redecoration choices, adaptations and extensions. One solution, the 2up2downers suggest, is to knock down every other row, creating more garden space or off street parking, but without creating a homogenised new development.

This is the same argument for creating something unique here at Mitchell’s, which reflects the character of the community, rather than allowing a Greggs the bakers or similar to take over this prime retail opportunity.

Linda Pittwood

From 15 September 2012 join a 2Up 2Down heritage bus tour (as featured in ourBiennial Highlights article). Booking essential: email

An intervention and audio work can be found at the Museum of Liverpool

Follow 2up2down’s progress here

First published August 2012

On a bright sunny afternoon we followed the map to a shabby building, went round the back, shuffled down a corridor and through a doorway. At this point we were plunged into darkness and separated. A little hand took hold of mine and guided me across the pitch black room. There were lots of people in the room – we could sense them, but not see them. A number of people were harmonising a spooky, hypnotic sort of song; mc-ing, speaking, humming and dancing.

This continues, becoming increasingly frantic and intense, the dancers jumping and pounding on the wooden floor. The lights began to strobe, revealing about 15 dancers in black costumes, and around 30 spectators looking on transfixed. The room went black again and the sweaty, exhausted dancers started speaking (in American accented English) about their childhood dreams and proposing that “the income derived from producing things of slight consequence is of great consequence”. This became a mantra, repeated over and over.

Even if you have experienced Tino Seghal’s performances before, they always surprising; whether they involve a little girl purporting to be a character from a computer game, or you are confronted by a person asking you the question: “so, what is progress?” Or, as in this case, comprising a choreographed song/dance delivered by whole troop of performers in pitch darkness. We went twice on that sunny afternoon and had a totally different experience each time. The title, This Variation, hints at an open-ended format, and people, participants and the audience, arrive and leave all the time, suggesting that they were working in shifts. Performance art tends to require a bit of thinking and processing afterwards, and luckily we knew just the right place to go and reflect with a cold glass of Riesling.

When we realised that dOCUMENTA (13) was happening in Kassel during the summer (having already thought about a German camping adventure), it was a no-brainer. Here was an opportunity not to be missed, as dOCUMENTA happens only every 5 years. This would be our first ‘biennial’ experience other than Liverpool – the UK variant. dOCUMENTA is deeply embedded in twentieth century history, emerging out of the cultural dark-ages of Nazism. The first festival, held in 1955, showcased the art of the day (Fauvism, Expressionism, abstraction etc) and aimed to re-establish Germany as a cultural force. 2012′s incarnation reflects on its own history – and art history – as well as trying to create an impression of today’s complex and constantly shifting international contemporary art-world.

We arrived on 2 July, 40 days after the opening of the so-called ‘100 day museum’. The website advises that visitors spend at least two days owing to the quantity of artists involved (over 160) and the geographical spread of the exhibits (and that doesn’t include the outpost in Kabul). We camped 30 minutes by train outside of Kassel in a town called Zierenburg. Like Kassel itself, Zierenburg was mostly rebuilt after the second world war, and its 1950s architecture is dated. Both city and town were scrupulously clean and occasionally, surprisingly, beautiful; however, the C&A in Kassel and the lack of commuters at Zierenburg station at 8.30am reveal the lack of prosperity behind the well-kept facade.

For anyone catching the train into Kassel in the near future, a good tip is to stay on past the Hauptbahnhof, whereupon the train becomes a tram and takes you all the way to Königsplatz – about five minutes away from the Friedrichanium, the hub of the festival. This will save a small amount of time and energy, which you will need to traverse the festival. Another tip for those after the full experience, is that food doesn’t come more authentically German than Kaffee und Kuchen; ideal for keeping energy levels up during a long day. Our favourite cake of the trip was an amazing Kirchkuchen at Jugendcafe, Treppenstraße.

We had to fight the feeling of regret, which started on day one, that we wouldn’t be able to see everything. If this is your intention, you are doomed to failure, as even if you stayed a week to see all of the exhibitions and interventions, you would not be able to see every film or artist talk in the associated programmes. Therefore, each visitor’s experience will be unique – shaped by chance encounters, desire to see the work of certain artists or a compromise with the desires and needs of your companions. Having said that, the Frieze documenta-special ebook has the following piece of rousing advice: “If you’re with a group, don’t walk around together but divide up and conquer.”

Whether we conquered the festival is up for debate, but we certainly had highlights from our particular dOCUMENTA experience. If we were to just recommend one thing to see it would be that Tino Seghal performance, but hard on its heels are Song Dong’s Doing Nothing Garden (a wild flower garden grown on a mound of rubbish); Goshka Macuga’s tapestry, Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not (the partner piece of which is on display in Kabul); lovely paintings by Etel Adnan; the classification of human DNA by Alexander Tarakhovsky in his installation DNA sequencing of genes affected by fear; and Mark Dion’s museum within a museum at the Orangerie.

The Neue Gallerie is an essential part of a visit to dOCUMENTA (13) with some great pieces including Wael Shawky’s puppet-film Caberet Crusades, Andrea Büttner’s investigation of religion through film and printmaking, and Geoffrey Farmer’s ambitious installation of images cut from Life magazine (pictured).

Some of the artworks were more interesting when compared and contrasted with one another, and there were lots of interesting exhibits that revealed the process of curating the festival. A thought-provoking video directed by Khaled Hourani and Rashid Masharawi about the politics and logistics of loaning a Picasso painting to the International Academy of Art Palestine, exposed the sometimes fraught museum processes. It was interesting to think of this in light of the artworks borrowed for dOCUMENTA (including pieces by Lee Miller and Dali) and how curatorial decisions create meaning.

‘Museums’ was a theme woven throughout the festival; Halle Yan Lei explored this by densely hanging his paintings on 10 metre-high walls and showing yet more on roller-racking. As well as classifying and memorialising, a lot of the selected artists were trying in some way to challenge accepted narratives: Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbian and trans people in South Africa and Dinh Q. Le’s watercolour representations of the Vietnam war two prime examples. We talked a lot during our time in Kassel about guilt, memorial and remembrance and how connected we felt to the past – it was not clear whether this was prompted by the art or because we were seeing it in a city that had been bombed to pieces by the allies. A bit of both maybe.

From Kassel we drove on to Berlin – via Dessau to see the newly reopened Bauhaus school – and from there to Hannover. Some of the thoughts that we took with us from Kassel, about responsibility, regret and trauma resonated in Berlin, where WW2 is being constantly analysed and reflected on by successive tourists. This was off-set slightly when we saw a fun Haroon Mirza installation at Ernst Schering Foundation’s Project Space, visited Asterisms by Gabriel Orozco (classified and documented flotsam and jetsum) at the Deutsche Guggenheim, and in Hannover we walked the sculpture mile.

Northern Germany isn’t as pretty as the south and it is still deeply scarred by the past; but a visit will offer heaps of good quality cultural experiences, and not just in trendy Berlin. We are already making plans to visit dOCUMENTA in 2017 when it coincides with the once-every-ten year festival, Skulptur Projekte Münster. However, I am sure that Germany will tempt us back before then.

Linda Pittwood

dOCUMENTA (13) continues until 16th September 2012

First published July 2012

John James Audubon said of Liverpool, “When I landed it was raining. Yet the outward appearance of the city was agreeable. But no sooner had I entered it than the smoke from coal fires was so oppressive on my lungs that I could scarcely breathe.” When Audubon arrived in Britain from the frontiers of 1826 America he was treated like a celebrity because – fresh from the Wild West – he wore his hair long and dressed like a woodsman. His mission was to publish and then promote his book Birds of America; which was an attempt to observe and record in paint all the bird species of the uncharted continent. Artist Robert Peterson says that Audubon has become part of “American identity making” and suggests that there are two people to examine here: Audubon the man and Audubon the myth.


Peterson is one of the artists in new exhibition Spectacle of the Lost at Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool (VG&M). Due to the role that Liverpool played in Audubon’s story, VG&M holds the largest collection of original oil paintings by the artist outside of America. Guest curator Laura Robertson conceived of this show, which she asserts “had to happen”, when talking to Liverpool-based artist Jon Barraclough about their mutual fascination with the 19th-century artist and naturalist. Barraclough, Peterson and Alexandra Wolkowicz make up the Birds Ear View Collective, a group who produce contemporary art as a response to the millions of birds who die each year as a consequence of flying into skyscrapers in New York City. Audubon has given his name to the network of ecological conservation societies in America – skyscrapers are the particular problem facing the NYC branch. For Spectacle of the Lost, Birds Ear View Collective are presenting new pieces produced in Liverpool alongside existing work.

Understanding the complex layers and relationships going on within and outwith this exhibition is important. However, like Audubon’s minutely observed paintings (his Black and White Warbler is pictured), there is much to enjoy here in aesthetic and formal as well as conceptual terms. Presented alongside some of Audubon’s prints, the artists have used “installation, photography, drawing, performance, sculpture, film and sound”, to produce an exhibition that is surprisingly tranquil and reflective – perhaps because of the undercurrent of death. Barraclough’s enormous drawings hang in space at opposite ends of a large gallery; unlike ordinary road kill, these bird corpses are impossible to ignore. Giclée photographic prints with titles like ‘Fallen Dark-Eyed Juno” contribute to the stillness. In the centre of the gallery, the film ‘Birds Ear View NYC and Liverpool’ is projected onto the ceiling and can only be properly enjoyed by lying back on a bean bag. And elsewhere Peterson’s sound-work intervenes in the permanent Audubon display.

Audubon shot and killed birds in order to see them up close. Laura Robertson admits that this practise might have contributed to the extinction of some bird species, and it adds another dimension to a character she calls an “anti-hero and “a charlatan”. For the American artists (Peterson and Wolkowicz) examining Audubon is also a way of unpicking the legends of the Wild West and questioning the values of America today. Whether this exhibition really gets under the skin of this intriguing character, I am not sure, but it is a great introduction to this historical figure for the uninitiated. The exhibition seems to contain an ecological message (the cryptic title ‘Spectacle of the Lost’ I interpret as a reference to mankind’s attraction to nature, only to persistently ruin habitats and waste natural resources) but communicates it subtly, allowing the artworks to exist in their own right.

Interestingly, this isn’t the only occasion this year that VG&M has chosen to reinterpret taxidermy; as part of ‘Light Night’ in May the gallery hosted contemporary artist and taxidermist Polly Morgan, who stuffed a starling in front of a live audience. The Light Night event and this new exhibition have bought a contemporary strand to the programming at VG&M, which curator Moira Lindsey hopes will attract a new audience as well as offering something new for regular visitors. She says that Spectacle of the Lost has bought a “different and contemporary perspective to the permanent Audubon display” which seems appropriate as Audubon contributed to the history of the modern museum institution through his obsessive collecting and classification of bird specimens.

Spectacle of the Lost came about because of a chance conversation and a meeting of minds; however, it seems to have been destined to happen. This exhibition optimises the current collaborative trend in contemporary art practise; while at the same time the specific dialogues between the artists, spaces, collections and historical narrative have created something unique. For those who have never visited Victoria Gallery & Museum before – this is a good excuse to go.

Exhibition continues until 30 August 2012

First published June 2012

Where is everyone? The last two weeks had led me to expect a decent crowd; but when I arrived at Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) for Spectrum Part 3 there were only one or two other visitors looking at the work of graffiti artist Tomo. This was especially unexpected because there is a bit of a buzz around Tomo at the moment. He is shortlisted for the Liverpool Art Prize (currently on display at Metal, Edge Hill Station, Liverpool) and is The Double Negative’s artist of the month. It was a great opportunity, while the room was almost empty, to enjoy Tomo’s two floor-to-ceiling paintings (pictured). A home-grown talent (he grew up in Huyton and graduated from Graphic Design at LJMU in 2005) Tomo has plastered and painted his distinctive street art at locations all over the world. He effortlessly plays with scale, populating his paintings with an intriguing cast of characters and symbols. His monochrome offerings made a powerful start to the exhibition.

tommo large image.jpg

Some potential visitors may have found other distractions on that warm Thursday evening; however, the answer to where everyone was, is that they were all packed in to one room of the exhibition to see Julieann O’Malley’s performance Salty Milk: Violation of Expectation. For whatever reason, there hasn’t been as much performance art to see in Liverpool as there has been in Manchester or Birmingham; certainly since I moved to the city in 2003. Manchester City Art Gallery in particular bought performance into the mainstream with their 2011 exhibition, 11 Rooms. So maybe it is no surprise that O’Malley lives and has a studio in Liverpool, but regularly takes part in avant-garde theatre projects Manchester. What O’Malley demonstrated on Thursday evening is that not only is there an appetite in Liverpool for performance art, but that audiences will cram into a very small room to see a very challenging and (at over two hours) durational example of the art form.

Salty Milk: Violation of Expectation had a 1970s aesthetic, which I interpreted as homage to the feminist artists of that era who used performance as an alternative to the popular minimalist art produced by their male counterparts. O’Malley says that her artwork asks questions about why we do the things that we do. Here the activities of baking, sharing, note-writing, over-indulging, pregnancy and getting-ready-for-night-out were all presented back to the audience for examination. I won’t go in to detail but the audience were rewarded for their patience with a pretty gruesome display. They seemed to have enjoyed it though: all too often going to an art opening can be more about catching up with friends than engaging with the artworks, and this was refreshingly different.

If your stomach wasn’t turned enough, the work of Nicki McCubbing might just finish you off. I feel compelled to say that McCubbing’s work isn’t for the feint hearted, as that includes myself. She says that her macabre work is a product of the city as “jokes are often used by Liverpool people to conceal and overcome problems”; she seems to have picked up the mantle of Jake and Dinos Chapman and run with it into the nearest Woolworths. Although it is hard to look at, this is the best example of this kind of work that I have seen and McCubbing has a skill for making dolls and other low-culture artefacts into convincing sculptural objects.

The last two rooms contained paintings by Ria Fell and drawings by Penny Davenport. Davenport’s drawings are one of my highlights from all three parts of the Spectrum series. Using very fine obsessive mark-making, she produces images that are folkloric, entertaining and cleverly play with negative space. In the adjacent room I felt a bit sorry for Fell’s paintings as they were hung in what was essentially a corridor to O’Malley’s performance; however, they were well executed paintings that combined several artistic traditions in a fresh way.

At the close of the series it seems appropriate to reflect on what I have learnt about art and visiting exhibitions in Liverpool today. Interestingly, 10 of the 16 artists in theSpectrum series were women. A lot is written about how women are kept from success in the art-world as their time is directed towards caring for their partners and offspring – I hope that this exhibition is a sign that these barriers are breaking down. Another shift that Spectrum has demonstrated is in the makeup of the gallery goers visiting artist-led spaces. Perhaps it is because artist-led galleries are often in hard to find spaces on the edge of cities, but by contrast WCS seems to attract an intergenerational mix of regular gallery goers and those who are passing and curious. I haven’t got data to support these observations – and the diversity of the audience could be due to the marketing for Liverpool Art Month. Whatever the cause, the result is positive for the city and definitely good reason for the Arts Council England to continue to support endeavours such as this.

Spectrum Part 3 continues until Sunday 27 May open 12-4pm

First published May 2012

On Thursday night as I walked through the Ropewalks area, Liverpool felt very cool and, well, very unlike Liverpool. Since I was last there the area has increased its quota of boutique hotels, gig venues, bars and street art. Young people were drinking in moderation in the streets as they queued for Sound City events and a fleet of tour buses added to the anticipation. A party getting started in a vast indoor car-park made me feel as though I was walking through Berlin or Budapest as I made my way to Wolstenholme Creative Space (WCS) for Spectrum part II.

This experience made me realise that curating contemporary art does not only require consideration of the space, architecture and venue brand, but also requires an understanding of the wider context; what is happening in the surrounding locality, what else is on offer and what city-wide programming an exhibition can link into. The artists selected this week could not have been more different from the first week. In Spectrum part II the curators were able to introduce a more subversive, sexy, dark, silly and generally extreme sensibility. In particular, the work of Tony Knox and Roly Carline benefited from the heady, anything-goes atmosphere in the Ropewalks.

The first room was given over to an installation by long-time Liverpool scenester Tony Knox aka ‘Mothman’. Knox’s presentation (various pieces of existing work – chosen by the three Spectrum curators) was essentially a set for his performance, to take place the following evening as part of Light Night. Knox’s work explores wrestling and the iconography of cartoon characters, and his Mothman alter ego could be either a wrestler or a graphic novel anti-hero. His work felt a bit lost without him performing in it but I really liked the video projected onto a miniature boxing ring (pictured).

Tony Knox.jpg

Roly Carline’s film I grew up in the 90s and I loved it, involved: egg box pecs, two men in fake moustaches arguing in the bath, Peter Andre giving singing lessons, Vanilla Ice and Shaggy, a lot of papier-mâché and ambitious choreography. The sum of these parts created an artwork that reminded me of artists Ryan Trecartin and Paul McCarthy, the film Trash Humpers and the TV creations Bo Selecta and Beavis and Butthead. It was repulsive but oddly compelling.

At the back of WCS, filled with pink light and full of mysterious assemblages was the installation For Sale: baby shoes, never worn by Michael Aitken. Following on from Emily Speed’s literature-inspired artwork in the first week, this title is a six-word short story by Ernest Hemingway. Aitken’s work usually seems like a search for identity and happiness, started in adolescence and doomed to failure. This piece maintains his penchant for visual clues, but seems to be hiding its meaning (if one even exists) even more deeply than usual.

The last two rooms were very different in tone to the rest of the exhibition although there was still a dark undercurrent. The figures and scenarios in Rhonda Davies prints and drawings are familiar yet strange, innocent yet sexy and each one was a visual treat. In the final room there was a single image by Adriana Galuppo. Imagem da Besta (translated as ‘Image of the Beast’) exposes the use of propaganda in São Paulo, Brazil, where ordinary people are preached to via road-side billboards. The space around the photograph grounded it in an urban context and also allowed time for the frightening Orwellian significance of the image to sink in.

This was another very good exhibition, showcasing a diverse bunch of practitioners and some memorable works. There have been loads of great events lately that have helped to assert Liverpool’s status as a cultural destination for families; but it is good that we also have artist-led venues taking risks and providing a platform for edgy contemporary art. All that remains to be seen is whether the team at WCS can maintain this quality for the final instalment of Spectrum, opening 24 May at 6pm.

First published May 2012

Daniel works in the field of data communication. That is the practice of making data – literally numbers – into something that informs day-to-day management decisions. Of the bookInformation is Beautiful by David McCandless, Daniel says, “This is the most intuitive way to present data. Anyone can use Excel to produce a graph, but graphic design skills are required to create images that communicate so much more than just the relationship between the x and y axis.”

Information is Beautiful is the coffee table book of your dreams. It tackles issues and subjects as diverse as endangered species, annual government spend, alternative therapies and wine vintages and presents them in a way that is both functional and beautiful. It might seem a bit late in the day to take about McCandless’ book, which was published in 2009; however, this book marked the entry of data visualisation into the mainstream, and since then it has only been gaining in applications, sophistication and status. Crucially, data visualisation breaks down barriers between high and low forms of access to information, bridging between the popular and intellectual spheres.

Data visualisation has its origin in the 17th century, when cartography (the mapping of the earth) that had begun in the ancient Greece, developed into a much more accurate science. Quantitative data presented in a graphical way instantly has more power; Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagrams’ (pie charts) of the 1850s, which demonstrated the link between deaths in the Crimean war and poor hygiene, were able to gather public support for reforms far more effectively than the most persuasively written article. Conversely, a contemporary example dealing with a similar subject matter is The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard G Wilkinson and Kate E Pickett; this book presents a convincing case for reducing the gap between rich and poor; however, the way it presents its data lacks a certainje ne sais quoi that perhaps a graphic designer could have provided.

The phenomenon that we understand today as data visualisation has developed through the twin disciplines of graphic design and computer sciences. It has applications in the world of work, leisure and study; sometimes applying to all three. The way in which we are ‘plugged in’ to the internet means we need to consume new knowledge fast, and have at least some of the analysis done for us. McCandless’ most well known graphic design is the Billion Dollar-o-Gram. Speaking at the Ted Global Oxford in 2010, McCandless said that this image ‘arose out of frustration’ with press reportage relating to billions of dollars. He went on to say that without context, billions of dollars ‘don’t make any sense…and the only way to understand them is visually and relatively’.

McCandless’ graphics have appeared on mugs and posters as well as in exhibitions. He has worked with organisations including Tate Britain and MoMA and at Wellcome Collection, a free science and art exhibition venue in London, where one of his graphics was used in their exhibition High Society. The graphic presented a breakdown of the money made by the drugs trade and the amount spent on the war against drugs; it was an effective way of breaking down the myths surrounding this complex issue.

It is more usual to access data visualisations on-line; many fun applications help users to navigate the world wide web by mapping music, blog topics or image albums. Of the hundreds of thousands of data visualisations available on-line, some are more successful than others, the best ones have immediate impact – sometimes the information they present is surprising or even shocking – as well as providing meaningful analysis. Most significantly, the fields of popular science and education are using data visualisations combined with interactivity and animation, to communicate important new research. Professor Hans Rosling in The Joy of Stats, a BBC4 documentary programme from 2010, used an animated graphic to plot the life expectancy in 200 countries in relation to their wealth – this is well worth a watch on YouTube. Rosling is the co-founder of Gapminder, a venture that promotes a ‘fact-based world view’ and uses data visualisations to engage audiences with global issues.

We may be about to see the refining of data visualisation into a discipline in its own right (not simply existing on the fringes of graphic design, communication, information science and art) as the inaugural competition to celebrate global excellence launched in April this year. The judging panel includes senior curator at MoMA Paola Antonelli, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, McCandless and blogger and journalist Maria Popova. There are many tools already available to help individuals produce their own data visualisations (including IBM’s Many EyesTableau Public and Google’s Fusion Tables); and an ever greater expectation of dynamically presented information (due to interactive smartphone apps and the roll out of HTML5). This may be the year when data visualisation explodes.

First published April 2012

A man stands by some trees with blood smeared down his face.  He is looking away from you. You continue scanning across the landscape, trying to find clues to explain what has happened. The atmosphere is tense. A car lies on its side, smoke billowing from it as if it has been in a crash. There is no-one else around… To continue any further with this description would be a spoiler. To see the entirety of David Ferrando Giraut’s 13-minute film, Road Movie (Perpetuum Mobile), you will have to visit the new exhibition Topophobia at the Bluecoat. The theme is ‘anxiety around place’ and the exhibition showcases the artwork of 10 artists, including the work of its two curators, Anne Eggebert and Polly Gould.

Eggebert and Gould describe the works as sharing a common thread of “fearfulness, anxiety, unease, embarrassment, dislocation, alienation, nostalgia, loss, stage fright, urban dread, disturbing, or humorous incongruity, suspense and…thrill”. In addition, Eggebert says that the works reveal an emerging theme within contemporary art practice of “an anxious relation[ship] to the techniques and technologies of display.” This touring exhibition is the outcome of a long-term research-based curatorial partnership between the pair, who have been collaborating since 1999 and are both sometime tutors at Central St Martin’s College.

Sara-Jayne Parsons, curator at the Bluecoat, says that Giraut’s piece is the one that has stayed with her, having seen the exhibition in its inaugural venue, Danielle Arnaud, London. Road Movie is certainly powerful and masterful in creating a feeling of unease. The other pieces for the most part are about anxiety but do not necessarily make the viewer feel anxious; as Eggebert says, “art can offer our fears back to us to be enjoyed at a safe distance.” Giraut’s piece is not the only one that feels cinematic; Uta Kogelsberger’s photographs are straight out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie, while at the same time they celebrate the beauty and grandeur of the urban landscape. Elsewhere Almut Rink questions the artifice of the built up environment, through now retro but once futuristic architectural software, planting rows upon rows of identical CGI trees.

Suspended above the crowd, held up by scaffolding, is a human-sized nest or tree-house out of which legs or arms swing in a deadpan fashion from time to time. Liverpool-based artist Emily Speed has been commissioned to produce this new work, Panoply. Speed’s practise explores the relationship between architecture and the human body but this is her first performance in a gallery. The architecture of the Bluecoat is a great location for Speed’s cheeky new piece as it seems like a continuation of the evolution of this venue, especially in light of its redevelopment for the 2008 Capital of Culture. Several of the pieces, including Speed’s, borrow from child-like activities; building dens, making collages or hand-drawing maps. As I walk around the exhibition I start to re-examine these formative experiences; were these innocent activities actually a way of coping with the scary world outside my front door?

Topophobia is well balanced in terms of media old and new. Sometimes one is used to explore the other. Eggebert produces hand-drawn maps from Google Earth images, contrasting them with real plants or closely observed botanical drawings. Contrasting the landscape with modern life is also the subject of Marja Helander’s crisp and intense photographic images (pictured). Helander is Finnish and here cleverly expresses the difficulty of reconciling her life as a business woman with her snowy surroundings, and the contrast of her native culture with the weekly supermarket shop – it’s a nice touch that through the window of this gallery is a Tesco Metro and you can watch people rushing busily past. Abigail Reynolds’ sculptural collages continue the trend of the hand-made and Louise K Wilson combines cinema and collage in her new video work, Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place (signal/noise cut).

Dr Caterina Albano says in her accompanying catalogue essay, that agoraphobia is a “fear of modernity.” This put me in mind of the film Goodbye Lenin, where a family try to keep their mother from discovering that capitalism has taken over East Germany – imposing on her an artificial agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a crippling disorder, which prevents sufferers from leaving their homes and fully engaging in society. This exhibition makes me wonder whether cities full of advertising slogans and ugly or half-finished redevelopments are really the best backdrops to our lives. In Topophobia, the impact of the fluxuating German economy is the subject of Matthias Einhoff’s film, Brache Berlin. Einhoff uses the soundtrack and zooming camerawork of a promo video to introduce us to an area of Berlin that has been snapped up by property developers only to become a fenced-off wasteland. This video seems especially poignant in Liverpool in a week that a key UN figure described the Toxteth area as trapped in a “vicious cycle of social exclusion and drugs problems”.

A successful group show allows its audience to make connections and relationships between the work of the different artists, and Topophobia does that very well. The final leg of this tour is Spacex in Exeter. Each presentation has and will change according to the different architectural context. For an exhibition not conceived exclusively for the Bluecoat, it is very in-keeping with the venue’s programme of thought-provoking thematic shows. It seems to speak a lot about Liverpool and how the Bluecoat operates as an oasis in a city full of the peaks and troughs of new developments, history, partial-regeneration, fantastic architecture and terrible deprivation.

Linda Pittwood

Topophobia at the Bluecoat, until Sun 22nd April

First published March 2012

In addition to the reduction in government funding, the arts sector can also expect less corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and individual donations as the economy is put under pressure. Less funding is likely to reduce the quality of the arts offer in some regions and force the closure of galleries, museums and artist-led initiatives. It seems an appropriate time to ask: why do we need cultural engagement and what will happen to museums and galleries if we don’t visit them?

In 2010 the Government cut national museums budgets by 15%, Arts Council England was asked to reduce their administrative budget by 40% and to pass 15% cuts on to their regularly funded organisations. The Arts Council is a vital funding stream for large museums and individual artists alike. In museums, the gradual loss of staff as well as a reduction in the scope and ambition of exhibition programmes and other activities could lead to a reduction in visitors (PDF). Without visitors, museums will lose their reason for being. The process of interpreting objects, artworks and history is ongoing and dependant on new voices to keep them relevant; these voices come from staff, visitors and the community. The National Museums Directors Conference describes museums as “spaces in which identities are understood, formed and shared” and “a stimulating public space in which people can come together and be inspired.” (PDF)

Museums also help us to celebrate, question and explore human history. Without remembering its history, it is possible that the human race could succumb to a collective amnesia. Doctor of neurology Oliver Sacks describes an individual with amnesia as “… isolated in a single moment of being… without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment”; this could describe a vision of the future for us all without culture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoed this sentiment when, speaking about an exhibition of photographs of apartheid he said, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Representing the dark side of human history is an important role of arts organisations. There are many museums and galleries, including the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, that are proactive in confronting today’s crises by bringing social injustice to our attention.

It is possible that the UK could lose its international outlook as a result of the reduction in cultural experiences. At the moment the UK is one of the most globalised countries in the world (PDF). Globalisation is defined by three key elements; social, economic and political, but also by the flow of ideas, trade and social mobility among other factors. Artists and art organisations have historically been at the forefront of introducing new ideas to the UK as well as critiquing the existing systems and status quo. Cities across the country have already lost key arts venues, and the Arts Council’s RFO portfolio had to be reduced from 849 to just 695 in the National Portfolio. It does not seem outlandish to wonder whether losing its voice in the international flow of ideas will leave the UK isolated and less able to participate in other global activities such as politics and trade.

Sheffield is a topical example of a city about feel the impact of cuts to its cultural provision. In January, Museums Sheffield found out that it will lose its share of the Arts Council England Renaissance support, equivalent to 30% of its annual budget.  The result will be the loss of, “around 45 key professional posts,” as well as, “greatly reduced educational activity for schools and adults in Sheffield,” and, “the end of significant exhibitions of a national standard” the museum told the Guardian.

Like Liverpool and Glasgow, the regeneration of Sheffield since the 1990s has involved improving its cultural offer, through projects such as the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens. In the future, without being able to rely on its flagship museum service, Sheffield may not be able to compete as effectively for tourism with its neighbouring cities of Leeds and York. Cultural tourism is vital to support the city’s growing service industry and ensure ongoing prosperity.

It will be interesting to follow the stories of Liverpool and Sheffield as their fate unfolds over the next months and years. Culture has been an important part of the regeneration of regional cities, as well as bringing new ideas and tourists to the UK. A decline in the quality of cultural provision could mean less cultural engagement.  Less cultural engagement could result in the stagnation of our interpretation of history, forgetting our history and losing our international voice.

First published February 2012